At the end of every season, the Symphony NH musicians like to give their audience a mighty blockbuster performance. This year is no exception.
The season’s last concert, “Power Play,” on Saturday, April 19, is going to feature two major pieces of music. Guest artist Max Levinson will start the evening in Nashua with his Symphony NH debut, playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Keefe Center for the Arts.
“Brahms only wrote two piano concertos,” the ensemble’s music director and conductor, Jonathan McPhee, said in a phone interview. “[Piano Concerto No. 2 is] not your typical piano concerto. It’s really huge and symphonic in form. Max Levinson, my soloist for this, is somebody who I’ve done many kinds of concertos with, and this seemed like the perfect piece to introduce him to Symphony NH audiences with.”
Levinson’s career was launched when he won First Prize at the Guardian Dublin International Piano Competition (the first American to achieve this distinction) in 1997, and also when he was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1999. He was very pleased when McPhee offered him the opportunity to play Brahms’ second concerto, as it’s something he always wanted to do.
“There were two parts to my reaction,” Levinson said in a phone interview. “I was very excited. … But at the same time, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness — I’m going to have to really work.’ It’s one of the most difficult of all the piano concertos to learn.”
So he’s been hard at work these past two months. Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 is a piece you won’t hear every day; not only does it take a highly skilled pianist, technically — it contains some really difficult hand passages — but it also requires the pianist to play alongside an entire orchestra. It’s also very long, requiring great stamina.
But the real challenge? Making it sound easy.
“You don’t want the audience to focus on these difficulties,” Levinson said. “You just want them to notice what a great piece of music it is.”
And it is a great piece; with Brahms, “every note is there for a reason,” Levinson said. Brahms had this ability to capture the depth of emotion within its careful construction.
“The music has an appeal in how it feels, but the more you dig into it, you discover how much is really there,” Levinson said.
The other part to the program is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique.”
“It’s the last symphony Tchaikovsky wrote,” McPhee said. “In fact, he died just eight days after the piece premiered. But it’s also a unique piece in many ways.”
Unlike his other pieces, “Pathétique” is programmatic, meaning that it was written to tell a story.
“But he never told anybody what the story is,” McPhee said. “None of the other symphonies he wrote were what we call ‘programmatic music.’ … He shied away from it in all his others.”
The only clue is in the name: “Pathétique.”
“The melodies are absolutely heartbreaking. The symphony builds up to be something so incredibly romantic, and then it sort of turns back on itself. It’s probably one of the top 10 pieces ever written,” McPhee said.
In its second year as Symphony NH (renamed and re-branded from the Nashua Symphony in 2012), the orchestra has grown tremendously. Its audience has widened, and so have its outreach programs. It’s holding more concerts than ever before, and of course, the pure skill of the group as a whole has improved, too.
“I’ve been waiting, on purpose, to present this piece in order to make sure the orchestra and I had enough time to grow together, so I could get enough of that pathos, that understanding and depth from them,” McPhee.
It’s really something only an experienced orchestra could present in true form.
“The orchestra is a breathing, living organism, and it takes a great deal of trust between the conductor and orchestra for it to be pulled off really well,” McPhee said. “It’s been an exciting time. Things are growing.”
As seen in the April 17, 2014 issue of the Hippo.